A world unlike our own (sort of another Illogicon post)

One of the topics that came up at Illogicon was working with characters from cultures not our own. Different concepts of good, evil, honor, bad behavior—and even if they freak you out, you have to be true to your characters’ views. Particularly if it’s a historical setting. Natania Barron pointed out that the Roman protagonist in one of the things she’s working on has by our standards some really creepy attitudes, but they’re what you get when you’re in Rome (do you notice me avoiding the obvious joke?).
The remarkable thing is, you don’t even have to go back that far to get really different viewpoints. The protagonist of my 1950s-set Not In Our Stars But In Ourselves, for instance, is horrified to be framed for murder. He’s a lot more horrified that the woman he supposedly killed was (also supposedly) his black lover. If his parents should see that, if they thought he’d done that … for L.G. Walker, the possibility of people thinking he’s crossed the color line is horrifying.
I came across another example in New Worlds of Fantasy, an excellent anthology from the 1960s edited by Terry Carr. Eschewing epic and adventure fantasy, it includes Jorge Luis Borges’ “The Immortal,” Ray Russell’s tale of a composer’s pact with Satan (“Comet Wine”), and J.G. Ballard’s excellent “The Lost Leonardo” (a Wandering Jew story) though probably the best known tale today is Peter Beagle’s “Come Lady Death.”
And then there’s “Nackles,” a short story written pseudonymously by crime writer Donald Westlake (Harlan Ellison would later rework it into a Western Union script for one of the Twilight Zone revivals, but it never aired).
The premise of the story: Santa Claus has all the attributes of godhood, such as being everywhere at once (at least on Christmas Eve), judging our sins, answering children’s prayers and millions of devout believers. And most gods have some sort of evil counterpart. So when the central character starts telling his kids about Nackles, the anti-Santa who devours naughty children on Christmas Eve—and then tells other kids he meets, and encourages other parents to tell their kids—the belief that creates Santa eventually manifests a real Nackles as his player on the other side who carries of the drunk as the meanest, least-good person around (or so it’s implied—Westlake left the ending a little ambiguous).
The thing about “Nackles” is, the protagonist is a drunken, physically and verbally abusive man and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Okay, the narrator (his brother-in-law) gets him to stop hitting his wife by beating him up (I do not believe this works in real life), but there’s no suggestion of calling the cops or getting social services involved, let alone any consideration of getting divorced or moving out. Which is perfectly true to the time: Divorce was hard to get and spousal/child abuse really wasn’t taken seriously (particularly not when you’ve got a respectable middle-class taxpayer involved). Other than slapping the guy around, all the narrator can say is that he shouldn’t have let his sister marry the guy (which makes an assumption about the sister’s standing in itself). It’s a good plot and well written but it’s incredibly distracting to see a contemporary fantasy that feels so … un-contemporary.

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4 responses to “A world unlike our own (sort of another Illogicon post)

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